Mike Redwood

Columnist

International Leather Maker


Field, Fork and Fashion by Alice V Robinson is a deceptive book. It is thin, simply written and talks through the basics of the processes from the abattoir to finished leather products. Most tanners will have lots of experience of these processes so would anticipate that covering this ground again will be a simple proposition. But if, like me, you read through the book and find it bringing tears to your eyes, you will have realised that there is a special profundity here worthy of deeper consideration.

Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new models for getting leather to market with various levels of high morality – organic, traceable and the like – and I was aware of Alice Robinson in this category, with her associated business trademark “British Pasture Leather”. Like many of my colleagues, while I thought these ventures very worthy, I was nervous about how well the science had been thought through and considered them too small to make a meaningful impact.

This changed for me two months ago when I was sitting on a panel at a sustainability conference at De Montfort University (DMU), a place that the leather industry can expect to start hearing more about. Alice Robinson was also on the panel, along with the designer Bill Amberg and Dr Kerry Senior, Secretary of the International Council of Tanners and Leather UK.

Understanding livestock agriculture

Alice’s approach was quite captivating and the concept very solid. I was impressed to know that she had already worked with Bill Amberg and that, as head of Leather UK, Kerry Senior had her detailed on their website where changes in recent years mean that Leather UK now embraces the wider leather making and using industry, including the new micro-tanners that have historically been ignored.

Alice Robinson comes from a family that understands livestock agriculture and her father is an animal veterinarian. When studying fashion design, she found herself uncomfortable handling a wide variety of leathers lacking details of origin. The book describes how she upturned the design process by making first a small collection from the fibres and skin of a sheep she sourced near her home, and then progressed to a much bigger project of buying a Longhorn heifer – Bullock 374 – and taking it through all the stages from slaughter onwards.

The book meticulously describes every stage. It could have been tedious, but her language is exceptional. The meat and leather industry live in a world of jargon that can overwhelm designers, who we demand get up to speed with their raw materials. Explaining matters as she sees it changes the vocabulary and illuminates the whole process in ways everyone can appreciate.

Her refreshing approach follows her as she decides how the carcass should be cut and the meat used, and then goes on to the tannery to watch the conversion of the hide into leather. Only then does she survey what she has made and decide how it can best utilised, given that it had been agreed to form part of an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in London called “FOOD: Bigger than the Plate”.

Limited by the small number of UK tanners existing today, and that a number of those were involved in major ownership changes, she found herself using two tanneries I know well. I became Technical Director of Holmes Hall tannery in Hull, where the hide was tanned, in 1971. It was a big side leather tannery in those days and part of the Barrow Hepburn Group. At that time, there was good natured tension between the heavy leather vegetable tanners and the light leather chromium ones, with well-known industry names such as George Odey, Morley Wilson and Tig Shepherd steeped in the vegetable culture while Richard Odey (George’s son), Richard Hinde, Mervyn Hudson and Anthony Collinson were the pioneers of the chromium-tanned leather world.

After Hull, Alice’s hide went to Pittards in Yeovil for retanning. I was based there from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, mostly as Group Sales and Marketing Director. Alice discovered the wonders of a splitting machine and found herself with over 50% more leather than she had anticipated. Decisions about thickness and retanning methods forced decisions that shared knowledge of end use with the nature of the hide.

Imperfect beauty

She was keen to see the surface she would be cutting for bags, footwear and garments, so had the pieces left unfinished after drying and staking. Consequently, new terms arise for defects such as “proof of life” and “imperfect beauty” as she manoeuvres her patterns into a zero-waste nesting approach. She designed with the natural features in mind, incorporating growth markers where they would naturally flow, even highlighting these a little with the hand wax protective coat she put on the grain.

The vision of British Pasture Leather, which she established with American agriculturalist Sara Grady, is to create leather from animals raised on farms that are regenerating land and ecosystems. It has grown rapidly as a result of connections and calls that came as her work, and her book became known. There is an obvious demand as many of the smaller UK abattoirs now throw hides and skins away. This is upsetting farmers, who feel that having carefully raised an animal every part of it should be used.

While I fully accept the fact leather can be defined as a by-product or waste product to fight off those who want to combine it in a bigger ideological battle, the link with the farmer was how I was brought into the industry. Even during my days at Holmes Hall, I knew all the abattoir marks stamped by the tail at the butt of the raw hide. I could watch the hides through the tannery, and I had staff regularly visiting the abattoirs to work with farmers on the extermination of warble fly damage.

She notes that the grade of the leather could not be decided on the bench in the tannery but had been defined on the farm. Bullock 374 had lived in an outdoor grazing environment reflected in the hide. Grady + Robinson, as they also call themselves, are promoting a formula which is closer to the real history of leather, closer to the ideal that we all seek. I believe that it can truly be the basis for major growth, and sincerely hope it crystallises similar thinking elsewhere.

If you’d like to read more about Grady + Robinson, you can find a full feature on their work in ILM March/April 2022.


mike@internationalleathermaker.com

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